When Frank Rich retired from the Times and went to work for New York magazine, I was quite sad. Rich is a piquant and incisive observer of humanity in general and politicians in particular. He began his career as a theater critic, so he's a natural fit with political journalism.
Rich has been joined by Jonathan Chait and others at New York, creating a nice counterpoint to the Times opinion writers, but Rich only seems to write something every 6 weeks or so.
His latest piece is exactly the sort of thing that he excels at and someone like, say Maureen Dowd, does not. He meticulously and thoroughly unpacks Mitt Romney's character and the problems his character presents for his presidential campaign. At the heart of the issue is that no one seems to know who Mitt Romney really is, and the degree to which Romney himself knows who he is, he keeps it so hidden that even Mitt is unsure of himself.
This is at the heart of Romney's failure as a politician. It's not that he's a patrician. Both Roosevelts were patricians, Bush 43 was a patrician. But the Roosevelts and Bush (both of them actually) knew who they were and connected to people out of that solid knowledge of who they were. Dubya was an overgrown frat boy and so he could goof around and give nicknames and people "wanted to have a beer with him" even if he was drinking O'Douls. His father failed in '92 when he tried to connect to common people and had no idea what a supermarket scanner was.
The single greatest retail politician of our lifetimes is, of course, Bill Clinton. He is an inherently seductive man, the sort who after not seeing you for five years can recognize you on a rope line and note that you've lost weight and changed your hair. Obama is not of that caliber, but he is not the stiff, Spock-like figure that Dowd would make him out to be. He handles hecklers well, he has a sense of humor and he can do a little Al Green. His lame joke about spilt milk actually works to humanize him. Obama knows who he is and projects that sense of himself rather effortlessly. That's why, despite the weak economy, people still pretty much like him, even if they want more from him as president.
Romney is a cipher. Again, go read Rich's column for an excellent dissertation on the various levels of Mitt's opaqueness. I think the quote that Rich leads off with is a great example of what trouble Romney as a politician:
“Mitt was a nice guy, a smart businessman, and an excellent team player,” he responded without missing a beat. Then came the CEO’s one footnote, delivered with bemusement, not pique: “Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us had any idea who this guy was.”
And there it is. Rich wonders if maybe this isn't somehow a response to Romney's membership and devotion to the Church of Latter Day Saints. Because of the nature of Mormonism and its history, Mormons - especially those who grow up in Michigan and Massachusetts - have to cloak their beliefs somewhat, unless they are on their Mission. His religion is obviously very important to Mitt, but he is extraordinarily reluctant to talk about it, so maybe he does feel the need to hide the thing that exists at the very center of his character.
I honestly don't know. If I was a Freudian, I might suggest Mitt was a deeply closeted homosexual who learned to lie to himself from a very young age. (Let me clear, that's not intended as a slur. Just an explanation of how someone can be so completely at odds with their own self.)
Whatever the case, Romney will not suddenly overcome this. The CW coming out of the last debate was that Romney suddenly developed the skills to take down Gingrich in Newt's preferred format. Maybe, but Santorum took down Romney in that same debate, so what does that prove - other then Newt's prowess as a debater is vastly overrated. There is also some CW that Mitt will benefit from a long campaign against Newt the way Obama benefitted from having to campaign against Clinton.
But Obama benefitted from the 2008 primary, because he had never faced such a punishing gauntlet before, and it toughened him up. Romney has been running for office off and on since 1994. And he still kind of sucks at it.
And it's precisely because Romney's flaws as a candidate are not tactical, they are engrained in him. Romney is flawed as a candidate, because he seems to be a man incapable of empathy. So he says crap like this. He makes a reasonable statement about the middle class, but does so in such a way as to sound like an absolute prick.
My paleolithic father used to mock Clinton - whom he otherwise supported - for his "I feel your pain" line, but that is important to people. It is important that we feel that our leaders have a clue about what's really important to us. If there is anything that unites the Tea Party and OWS, it is that both movements feel that our leaders have abandoned them and their needs.
In 1920, the Democratic party placed a handsome, charismatic young man with a prestigious name on the Vice Presidential ticket. But he was vain and a little shallow. Shortly thereafter, he developed polio and his legs were paralyzed. As he put it later, when you spend weeks trying to wiggle a toe, all else seems easy.
Romney cannot be FDR, because Romney has never had to face who he really is or what he really believes. He was never tempered by fire. Whoever the real Mitt Romney is, I'm not sure even he knows.